Atlanta ranks No. 11 among metro areas hosting foreign students but No. 5 in students from Seoul. 

China may reign in sending students to Georgia, but broken down by metro area, Atlanta’s connections to the South Korea‘s capital could prove most productive economically. 

new analysis of F-1 student visa data by the Brookings Institution shows that Atlanta attracted 1,715 students from Seoul, three times as many as from Beijing. That made Atlanta the fifth largest metropolitan magnet for Seoul scholars behind Los AngelesNew YorkBoston and San Francisco

That positions Atlanta’s higher education system as a huge export service to South Korea, considering the fact that students just from Seoul spent more than $2 billion on tuition and living expenses in the U.S., edging out students from Beijing by more than $100 million. 

Seoul was the leading city sending students to the U.S., with 56,503 to Beijing’s 49,946. Shanghai was a distant third at 29,145, followed by Hyderabad, India, at 26,220 and RiyadhSaudi Arabia, at 17,361 rounding out the top five.

This report also may explain a surprising finding in a separate Brookings analysis: Seoul is Atlanta’s top air travel partner by passengers starting or ending their journeys between two cities. Korean Air Lines has a nonstop connection between the cities served by an Airbus A380, one of the world’s largest passenger jets. 

The report also suggests that Korean students are engaged with a broader variety of disciplines than those normally dominated by foreign students: business and science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. 

While Seoul was in the top three for total number of STEM students, its proportion in that area was only 20 percent, compared with 39.3 percent for Beijing. Some 22 percent of Seoul students were in business, compared to 30 percent for Beijing. Other popular fields for Seoul students include visual and performing arts (6,300 students), social sciences (4,400) and theology and religious vocations (4,100).

Seoul’s lead held firm in Athens as well, home to the University of Georgia, where the analysis counted 1,915 foreign students overall. Seoul sent 128 students to UGA, compared to 107 from Beijing. 

Atlanta was No. 11 overall among U.S. areas attracting foreign students, who spent about $35 billion in tuition and living expenses between 2008-12 in the 118 metro areas. 

But researchers concluded that students have vast economic potential beyond their immediate spending. They recommended that city leaders use them as connecting points back to their home countries: 

“Many foreign students possess valuable knowledge of the business, cultural and societal norms of two places simultaneously and can serve as powerful bridges,” the report said. 

That’s especially vital considering that “America’s foreign students come from fast-growing emerging cities in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.” 

For Atlanta’s export health, connectivity is vital: Air transportation services are the city’s top service export, to the tune of $1.7 billion, according to last year’s Export Nation report

The Brookings report counted 524,000 students in the U.S. on F1 visas in 2012. That’s a big discrepancy from the total outlined in the other main source of data about international students in the U.S., the annual Open Doors Report from the New York-based Institute for International Education

That report found 819,644 students in the 2012-13 school year using annual surveys of all accredited institutions asking for data on students from all visa types, including those who have graduated but are still working in the U.S. through optional practical training (OPT) programs. 

Generally, though, the IIE was satisfied that the Brookings report underscored some of its main findings: that the number of foreign students is rising consistently, that they mainly study in cities and that they tend to choose the business and STEM fields. 

“I’m glad to see that this detailed report supports those findings and it’s also interesting that we now have additional analysis on where students are specifically pursuing their OPT work and also which specific cities they’re coming from,” Rajika Bhandari, IIE’s deputy vice president for research and evaluation, told Inside Higher Ed

Read: Geography of Foreign Students

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...